Thursday, September 07, 2006

Civil Parameters

I quit my job at the beginning of August after working there for five weeks.

When I interviewed there, the place seemed pleasant enough. It was a clean, safe working environment. The people seemed personable, friendly and professional. The work would be challenging and rewarding.

It became apparent that a bit of a show had been put on while I was touring during my interview. After the first day some unofficial office rules became apparent. The moratorium on open toed shoes was livable but the first time someone finally told me that talking to fellow co-workers was verboten; that I was being too friendly and chatty, I was appalled. Apparently stopping to ask a coworker about a book on her desk during lunch break was unacceptable because it wasn't work related. I had also clocked in five minutes early two days in a row instead of the requisite fifteen minutes. Although the employee handbook simply stated that I was supposed to be in my seat and ready to work, and I had never failed at this, the "unofficial rule" was that everyone had to be there fifteen minutes early. An unpaid fifteen minutes early.

There were dozens more rules like this and it wasn't long before I broke a rule of my own. I quit the job before I had another job. I decided I could do temp work for a while. I've fallen back on temping a few times between jobs. It's a way to keep your skills current and learn new ones; get fresh ideas and new work experiences; and it’s a way to keep the dreaded “gap” from your resume and still get paid. It's a way to make contacts and more times than not, will lead to a full time job. Temping would also allow me keep my time flexible because I would need some time off. My mother was having surgery and I was to be her recovery nurse. This was something I had made arrangements for at the job I quit but something a new employer wouldn't be likely to be able to give.

With my mother's recovery now behind me, I’ve been taking longer temp assignments while still searching for a “permanent” full time gig. Today was the first day of a two-week data entry assignment. Everything was going very well. The environment was again clean and safe. The coworkers and supervisor were genuinely friendly and I was able to catch on to my assigned tasks within the first hour. Data entry is not brain surgery but I have a geeky knack for it and it's not a bad temp gig if you can get it.

The temp agency informed me that the start time may have been 8:00 or 8:30 and to make sure to ask what time I was to be there the next day. This is something usually covered by the agency but they have other temps working there and the shifts are flexible. I caught the supervisor as she was walking by and we confirmed an 8:30 start time.

"Oh," she mentioned as though she'd forgotten, "tomorrow we'll go to H.R. and get some pictures of your hand so you can use the hand scanner to clock in and out."

My professional demeanor broke and I must have looked as shocked as I felt because she immediately assured me that, "It's no big deal."

"It's no big deal," she repeated as I finally remembered to close my mouth. I went from being shocked to appalled as she explained how the machine worked.

"You just put your hand on the machine and then it beeps and then your name and the time you clocked in shows up on the screen. That's all there is to it. That's how all our employees do it. It's no big deal, is it?" she queried cheerily to the two employees sitting closest to me.

They both nodded their agreement. She continued her cheery stare and under her gaze the young lady sitting next to me quietly stated, "No, it's not a big deal anymore."

The supervisor walked away and into her office. I stared at the girl next to me and she broke into a wry grin that had no trace of humor.

"I know exactly what you're thinking. I didn't like it at first either. No, when I first started, I didn't like it at all. I was very uncomfortable with it. I was the last person in the building to actually sign up. She (the supervisor) was real mad too and kept on me until I did sign up."

The woman sitting directly across from us chimed in, "I didn't like it either but no one asked me. If we didn't do it, then what?"

"Well it's not as if you'd quit your job, especially if you've been here for a while," I said, quietly but angrily. "But it seems to me it's tantamount to blackmail. ‘We get to use a piece of your body for our time clock or you don't work here anymore?’ That's horrible."

The two women nearest me obviously didn't like it much. But they were accustomed to it after two years and they didn't think much about it anymore. They both admitted that it bothered them sometimes, but their attitudes asked the question, ‘What else could you do?’

I waited until 15 minutes before the end of the day before I went to the supervisor.

"I wanted to talk to you about the hand scanner?"

"What about it?"

"Well, frankly, I find it…distasteful and appalling?"

"Really? You're the first person who's ever objected to it," she said. I thought she had to be lying. I had just heard two of her employees tell me abjectly that they hadn't like it, with everyone else in our row of half cubicles nodding their agreement. It wasn’t until later that it dawned on me, of course no one ever objected in her hearing. I probably was the first person who’d been bold enough (read stupid enough) to actually say anything negative directly to her.

I thought maybe, because I was temp it wouldn’t be necessary. Maybe she had made a mistake or maybe the agency would intercede on my behalf. I couldn’t just accept this without at least asking to use a regular agency timesheet.

"Well, this is going to be such a short assignment. It's not like I'm a permanent employee. Since I'll only be here two weeks, is this really necessary?"

"Yes, even our temp workers have to use the system. It's just the way we do it. H.R. won't waive the system for temps."

"I'm sorry but I just don't know…I wasn't told about this at the agency, and if they had I probably wouldn't have accepted the assignment. As it is, I’m obligated to finish the assignment."

Temp Agency 101: Abandoning an assignment is unforgivable unless you were in a car wreck or died. You are forever termed "unreliable" and will not be reassigned. They have to pay you for time already worked, even if you abandon the assignment; but most will also bust you down to minimum wage.

"Well it's your choice but there isn't a way around it. Either you do [the hand scan] and you work here or you don't work here." Her voice was kind but her smile was frozen into place at this point.

I finished the day. My two co-workers were sympathetic with my ambivalence about returning and we said end of assignment goodbyes then.

"Well if I don't see you again, it was nice knowing you, but we'll understand why," the girl next to me said as I walked away.

I called the agency. They told me that because of the circumstances and the fact that I was not informed first, I am not obligated to finish the assignment. If this makes me uncomfortable enough not to want work there, they will not treat it as an abandoned assignment. I will be reassigned as soon as possible, no harm no foul. I have tonight to make up my mind. If I'm not going back, I have to call them at 8 a.m. to let them know.

Like everyone else, I have bills to pay. I was counting on this two weeks worth of work and although the agency may make an honest attempt to reassign me, they truly may not have an assignment for a week or so. I'm registered elsewhere but it's nice to know where and when you're going for a two-week stretch.

Still, I can't help but feel betrayed. The agency knew about this before they sent me and they didn't tell me. What's more, the employer really couldn't care less. If they treat their regular employees in this manner then, as a temp, I am plankton on the food chain.

Before I left, the supervisor made a last ditch effort to assure me that the hand scanner was ‘no big deal’. She took me to see the hand scanner and showed me how it worked using her own dainty hand. She explained that it does not read your fingerprint. It measures the parameters of your hand. You put in your code, put your hand down and voila, no one else can clock in for you.

I asked her if they would delete my information after my two-week assignment is up, but no, they have to keep the information on file with HR for "legal purposes" and then if it's not used for a long period of time it is archived. Besides, what if I temp for them again? I wouldn't have to reenter my info, I'd be all set up.

How convenient for them, I thought dryly.

Funny how they have all my information; name, address, telephone number, cell phone number, social security number, my previous job information, my professional and personal references and even my credit report but that's not enough to prove I'm trust worthy or even job worthy. Legally they can even demand my pee if they want it. Yet I can keep my urine to myself for this one job. They only want my hand scan and if I'm not willing to give up this last bit of myself, then tough luck. All else I've given is null and void. Yet I'm supposed to trust them with all this information including my hand "parameters" just for the privilege of doing their data entry work for two weeks.

My hesitation and distaste must have still shown plainly on my face because she repeated her earlier mantra.

"Really, it's no big deal." She then showed me how they even keep a bottle of hand sanitizer nearby with a brief demonstration of said Purel with Aloe. In addition to every day germs I suppose it's also handy to cleanse away the dirty feeling of being raped of your civil liberties and self-respect.

This situation reminds me of a quote from Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Nickel and Dimed.
When you enter the low-wage workplace--and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well-- you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world's preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to dictatorship.
So, I have a choice to make, surrender or move on. Hope for something better or accept the good and button my own lip. I mean at least I'm free to talk and wear open toed shoes again; but how long can I continue to espouse my blatantly liberal ideals if I’m not willing to live up to them.

How far do I compromise my own values? Is it worth it for such a short assignment? Is it worth it for anyone just trying to keep a job?

(This post has been edited for typing errors. The overall content has not been changed. Deborah 09/10/2006)

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